Last Thursday I wrote that I was having an off-week; Sherry pointed out (accurately) that it was my most introspective post in a long time. I was thinking about my work and wondering where it was all going, if anywhere. But that night I had to get up and jot down all the thoughts that were coming fast and expansive, like cracks opening up in a tunnel. I’d been thinking about Rilke’s question in Letters to a Young Poet (must I write/create?) and reading LM Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon (Emily stays up all night writing when she gets a good idea), and turning over my own tendencies to figure out where my bent is strongest: what are the things I feel compelled to do, as if the choice were not mine? What awakens that deep intuitive compass?
I remember we talked about this at VONA, too. Someone said she knew which were her most important stories because they were the ones that wouldn’t leave her alone until she wrote them; faculty members nodded their agreement. This troubled me because I didn’t have any stories like that: did it mean I was no writer, or worse, only a superficial one? (Perhaps I’ve been thinking this over for the year and a half since VONA and this discomfiting problem was actually the seed of my recent internal dialogue.) It’s true that most of my projects are comfortable on back burner for months or years at a time. But in mulling this over, I recognize that there are things that make me jump up and scribble furiously, that hover over my shoulder until I do something with them. Fiction doesn’t do that to me, either in prose or in comics, nor does nonfiction exactly.
Ideas do, though. Interesting structures, new perspectives, visual concepts — they can all command me out from half-sleep to jot them down in a notebook (or Erik’s iPad). Sharing does, too, and documentation; just yesterday morning I forfeited some sleep I badly wanted because a dream was beating me about the ears to be written down. There are things I want to give to the world (insights), new worlds I want to explore (dreamscapes), answers to my own burning questions (mortality). In this way, I’m less a world-builder than a world explorer, a problem-solver. My brain poses questions to me, and I go looking for answers, which I then share with others in hopes that my work can help answer their questions too.
If I think of myself as a problem-solver instead of simply an artist, I can see patterns that encompass more parts of my life than just my art. I derive as much pleasure from setting up a new system of organization as I do from making paintings — just a couple of weeks ago I was dancing around the house because I’d made a dandy new multi-sheet spreadsheet for our budget. (Laugh if you want — I did too!) I stayed up late one night drafting a perfume-inspired series of autobiographical vignettes… and I did the same when I had a monumental idea for a visual, digital, to-do list application (Erik says that idea is good enough to start a business on. Wish one of us had the time… but I’m hoping someday he will, since he can code and I can’t!).
All this got me thinking that maybe I inherit more than I realized from my engineer dad. It never occurred to me to compare us, because the family lore goes that I am the farthest thing possible from a scientist — and so I am, but science and engineering aren’t quite the same. It’s true that I’m almost never interested in why (unless we’re talking about human behavior), but I am constantly asking what if? When I articulated this to Erik he said I’d put my finger on the essential difference between scientists and engineers. I am curious about how things are done, I adore inventing solutions for everyday problems, and I enjoy experiments… but I’m an out-and-out humanities and social sciences person. Isn’t it interesting to wonder what might happen if you apply an engineering mindset to the arts and humanities? I wish I’d thought of it years ago!
I’m thinking now that for role models and inspiration, it might be fun to look beyond the great artists of the past, to the Renaissance men (and women!) who devoted their lives to creativity across all disciplines. Ben Franklin comes to mind, as does Da Vinci. Franklin was an artist (a writer and musician), a craftsperson (printer), a scientist and inventor, a statesman and a community innovator. Da Vinci excelled at apparently everything, from art to math to botany. “You want to be a polymath,” Erik said. I don’t know if I can, but it’s exciting to think of trying. Maybe I don’t need to always feel so in-between… maybe “all over the place” can be my strength and not something to feel inferior about!
I’ve written before about breadth versus depth, and these new insights point me yet again in that direction. We live in a society of specialization, and that’s made me feel bad for not being that way. But part of being a Franklin or a Da Vinci (not that I’m comparing myself) is that you can’t get a degree in it, or fill it out on a single blank under “career” or “field.” Their lives were built completely from their own interests, and from the connections between them. I feel giddy even thinking about it. As I wrote exuberantly and gracelessly this afternoon, “Maybe I will NEVER be able to easily answer the question of what I do or what I specialize in, but maybe that’s AWESOME.”
I’ve often noted that I’m an obsessive person and that I do a lot of things to excess. If I’m aspiring to be any degree of polymath, those tendencies are actually useful — they’ll help me locate the disciplines I most want to pursue, and then help me decide how to incorporate the new knowledge into my life. More than ever, I recognize the wisdom of Rilke’s advice to “go into yourself,” since my richest explorations and strongest direction will come from within. I should follow everything that speaks to me — but everything — to its furthest extent, and then let it sink into me to re-emerge in my own interpretation.
Anyway, I’m not saying I’m suddenly not an artist anymore. It’s more that I’m no longer going to try so hard to decide what I am and am not. Maybe I’m meant to be a writer and artist, and maybe I’m not, or maybe I’m meant to be much more. My job is just to follow my gut and my body and my nose, and make space for whatever I feel moved to do. Last month I was reading Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist (surely named after Rilke’s book) and she wrote, “You have an invisible badge of freedom, an invisible passport that says, ‘Go—move, gather, be bold, be brave, see, take, absorb.’” Yep — noted. Will do.